ACA.development.02.adv

Construction is underway on a new Acura dealership between Canberra Road and Crestlawn Drive, behind INFINITI of Lafayette, Thursday, February 13, 2020, in Lafayette, La.

Josh Guillory promised to make life easier for property developers and residents alike in his successful campaign for mayor-president last year. For flood-weary residents, Guillory pledged to fix Lafayette’s drainage system. Developers, meanwhile, would enjoy a business-friendly administration focused on removing bureaucratic hurdles.

Six weeks into the job, Guillory is moving forward on those promises. He has created a new department focused exclusively on drainage. He has also convened a committee to guide his “repeal and replace” policy on the Unified Development Code, the tome of regulations that has frustrated developers since it became law in 2015.

But Guillory’s priorities come into conflict within the development code he now wants to abolish. That’s thanks to a package of drainage and other anti-flooding measures that were added in late 2017, one year after catastrophic flooding hit Lafayette and elsewhere across the state. Many outraged residents blamed local officials for worsening the problem with their failure to properly regulate rapid development.

“The public works officials have to serve the largest piece of their constituency at any one time with any one decision,” said Alex Guillory, an engineer whose clients include governments and private developers in southwest Louisiana. “Officials move when the public complains about it. And the public is complaining.”

So, too, are developers, however, and they have Guillory’s ear. His “UDC Replacement Committee” is composed almost entirely of property owners, developers, architects, Realtors, engineers and other businesspeople. Guillory made clear in opening remarks at the committee’s first public meeting that its composition was by design.

“You have to live with this, so I want you to come up with it,” Guillory said on Feb. 7 before a standing-room-only crowd at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center, referring to a future development code.

The committee’s first task is to identify parts of the code “that are negatively impacting development or are detracting developers,” according to a meeting packet distributed to committee members. The laundry list of noted barriers they came up with included portions of the 2017 drainage amendments.

The committee is noticeably lacking in people “representing their specific neighborhood, their specific home,” said Councilwoman Liz Hebert, who attended as a spectator. Anyone in the audience fitting that profile who wanted to speak left disappointed, as there was no public comment period. Hebert said she is optimistic Guillory will gather input from outside the business community, as well.

“I believe that he does want to do that,” Hebert said. “That’s how I’m choosing to believe it, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it does happen.”

What Guillory himself envisions for the new development code, including in the areas of drainage and flood management, is unclear. His spokeswoman said he was not available for an interview. Real estate professionals who spoke with The Acadiana Advocate said they aren’t looking for wholesale dismissal of the 2017 anti-flood measures.

“We’ve got to tread very, very lightly on making any changes in the stormwater and flooding portions,” said Steven Hebert, chief executive officer of Billeaud Cos.

Committee members, meanwhile, are not uniformly on board with Guillory’s full repeal policy, which he reiterated in his remarks by emphasizing the word “replacement” in the committee’s name.

“It’s not UDC fix it, it’s not UDC amend it,” Guillory said.

Tension flared at the end of the meeting between those favoring limited alterations to the code and those who agree with Guillory. Among those speaking up for the limited approach was Ryan Pecot, a senior executive with Stirling Properties. In an interview, Pecot said developers have taken pains over five years to adapt to the code, and they are finally “getting comfortable” with it. The code is still flawed and always needs reviewing, but a complete rewrite is counterproductive, he said.

“Parts of it need to be improved. But if we go ahead and replace it with another document, that’s change again. A lot of the same complaints are going to come,” Pecot said. “I don’t think any developer has an issue with the evolution of doing it right.”

Some loosening of the new anti-flood measures is a safe bet in any case, particularly when it comes to those that require increased site acreage without adding revenue. They include a prohibition on “in-line detention,” which is the practice of incorporating natural drainage channels into new stormwater systems. Additionally, new construction in flood zones must maintain existing natural water storage capacity, a standard that developers meet by excavating unimproved land on site.

As written, these rules allow no room for “alternatives that do not adversely affect the flood plain,” said Jimmy Ricks, an engineer and representative of the Acadian Home Builders Association. Ricks said the association is eager to explore those alternatives with the new administration.

But those who worry Guillory is allowing the real estate industry to regulate itself are likely to be suspicious of anything the committee recommends. Among them is Aimee Robinson, a community activist who helped lead neighborhood opposition to a controversial car dealership expansion in south Lafayette over the past two years.

“When I see who showed up at the Rosa Parks center is commercial and residential developers, that does not make me feel warm and fuzzy,” Robinson said. “Everybody should be listening with wide open ears right now, that we are entertaining the idea of making this an easier process.”

Developers must prove their case

Robinson and her neighbors were incensed in 2018 when the City-Parish Council rezoned a 7-acre grassy field in the Canberra neighborhood to make way for a parking lot. Fabre Realty wanted the parking lot as part of its plans to build an Acura dealership on Johnston Street, alongside its existing Infiniti dealership.

Neighbors argued to no avail that the field — which is surrounded by single-family homes — is one of the few defenses against stormwater runoff from a cluster of new car dealerships between South City Parkway and Canberra Road.

Hebert, the councilwoman representing the area, justified her vote in part by pointing to the new drainage requirements, specifically that new construction reduce stormwater runoff rate by 15%. Drainage impact analyses are required to show how the requirement will be met, and public works must sign off before construction begins.

For Fabre, that meant multiple revised analyses in the year and a half following the rezone vote, with public works staff responding each time with new notes and questions, according to emails Robinson obtained through a public records request and provided to The Advocate. By mid-December 2019, the project had hit an “impasse,” as one of the project engineers put it in an email.

The development team finally requested a meeting with the outgoing public works director, Mark Dubroc, telling him in an email that “pressure is mounting quickly to get this resolved.”

Dubroc said in an interview he spoke with a project engineer once by telephone, shortly before the change in administrations. Dubroc said he simply reiterated that the development team must meet the staff’s requirements.

“They had not proven their case with enough clarity at that time,” Dubroc said. “That’s why it goes back and forth. They have to prove to our satisfaction that they met the requirements.”

Fabre’s drainage analysis was finally approved in late January, after the change in administrations. John Fabre, the dealership owner, told The Advocate in an email the project is underway and should be complete by late summer. He did not return follow-up calls.

Hebert, who continues to represent south Lafayette on the newly formed City Council, said she is satisfied that Fabre is following the new rules, which she said should remain as strict as possible.

“I do not support and will not support anything that lessens our drainage standards from what we have increased them to in November 2017,” Hebert said. “I don’t want to make it difficult to develop in Lafayette. But I don’t want it to be so easy that it’s a wild, wild west and anything goes. I believe there are rules.”

Though Robinson is unhappy the dealership project is moving forward, she credits public works staff’s diligence in forcing Fabre to satisfy the runoff requirement. Robinson said she is concerned the regulation might get lost in the development code overhaul.

“The thought of them revisiting and undoing that is alarming,” Robinson said.

While no one is yet pushing to kill the runoff reduction rule for large developments, it could get tweaked to exclude small property owners. As it stands, the requirement applies to all developments greater than two and a half acres.

That’s a headache for people seeking permits for personal reasons, who aren’t in the real estate business, said Angie Barrilleaux, a regulatory specialist for surveying firm Montagnet and Domingue. Their plans don’t typically pose any increased flooding threat of increased flooding, she said.

Barrilleaux recommended an exception for low-density projects, perhaps those with building areas that are less than 10% of the lot size. Those speaking out about unchecked developments aren’t concerned about “a tiny house on a large piece of agricultural property,” Barrilleaux said.

“They are worried about these major developments that come in and have maybe 20 to 25% open space,” she said. “These other people have 90 to 95% green space, but they are held to the same standards as everyone else.”

Barrilleaux’s proposed solution might solve Ray Hebert’s dilemma. Hebert wants to subdivide about 6½ acres south of Youngsville into four parts — one for each of his kids. The land has been with his family for generations, Hebert said, and the Planning Commission last year green-lighted his plans but with conditions: He must pay for a drainage impact analysis and show how he will reduce runoff by 15%.

The analysis will cost $5,000, Hebert said, and perhaps more if it needs revisions. He said he’s not sure if he will proceed.

“I’m just trying to give each kid their share of the property,” Hebert said. “I went and talked to the Planning Commission, and I just mentioned to them, I’m not building a subdivision. They said, well, you actually are.”

Email Ben Myers at bmyers@theadvocate.com. Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.